Monday, May 3, 2010

Tulsa County judge blocks online access to court records during civil trials; Court clerk expects such restrictions to become more common

A Tulsa County district judge has twice ordered the removal of online court records for the duration of the related civil trials, the Tulsa World reported Monday.

Judge Linda Morrissey ordered the docket sheets removed from the Oklahoma State Courts Network Web site during a recent medical negligence case and a condemnation case in March, the newspaper said.

The Tulsa County court clerk told the newspaper she thinks these restrictions will become more common in Tulsa County. "I am surprised it has not come up in a criminal case," said Sally Howe Smith.

Morrissey told the newspaper the restrictions were intended to protect the litigants' right to a fair trial.

But before the judge restricts online access to public records, she should take other steps to protect the litigants' rights or be able to justify that those steps won't be effective.

A number of U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal, including the Tenth Circuit, have used the balancing test for closing courtrooms to determine if court documents should be sealed.

Because the public is entitled to see these records, the judge may stop that access only if "closure is essential to preserve higher values and is necessary to serve that interest." (See, e.g., United States v. McVeigh, 119 F. 3d 806, 812-13 (10th Cir. 1997))

Morrissey told the Tulsa World that she routinely gives strong admonitions to jurors that they not search the Internet for information about the case being tried.

But the judge doesn't seem to believe that jurors are taking her seriously.

Subsequent coverage: Digital age can heighten public access quandary, editorial, The Oklahoman, 5.5.10.

Joey Senat, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
OSU School of Journalism

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